Los Angeles Times
April 3, 2005
VATICAN CITY — Two images, each freezing a turning point in history, define the papacy of John Paul II.
In the first, Karol Wojtyla returns to his native Poland as pope and electrifies one of the largest crowds ever gathered there. It is June 1979, and his vigorous presence adds momentum to the anti-communist resistance.
Twenty-one years later, a stooped John Paul shuffles up to Jerusalem's Western Wall and, with a trembling hand, deposits a note to God. The first pope to visit this most sacred site in Judaism begs forgiveness for the Holocaust and other Jewish suffering fed by centuries of Christian anti-Semitism.
Those actions were the fruit of an audacious mission to reshape the papacy.
John Paul shunned the bureaucratic-managerial role of his predecessors and returned the office to its evangelical origins. By venturing to nearly every corner of the globe and speaking to all humanity, not just Roman Catholics, he became the first successor of St. Peter to personify the church's claim to a universal reach.
He also set out to convert the world to a radical brand of Christian humanism. He insisted on a single standard — the dignity of each human — as the moral foundation for any free society. That message transcended ideological labels: He preached against communism and unbridled capitalism, abortion and the death penalty, population control and degradation of Earth's environment.
In doing so, he demanded total discipline from a church that was, he believed, threatened by secularization and a crisis of authority. Minimizing debate over Catholic doctrine, he ordered bishops, theologians, priests and nuns to fall in line behind his opposition to artificial contraception, ordination of women and married men, homosexuality and remarriage for divorced Catholics.
What mark will this missionary leave on Christianity's third millennium?
"It is the 'turning point' that is the most important," John Paul once wrote in answer to that question, "as when a train enters a switch where an inch decides its future direction."
For a church resistant to abrupt shifts, John Paul's new directions in leadership style and teaching are likely to continue defining its course for at least several years. Their longer-term effect, on the church and the world, is far from certain.
The Evangelical Papacy
George Weigel asserts in his 1999 papal biography, "Witness to Hope," that John Paul put a definitive end to "the managerial papacy, the pope as CEO of the Roman Catholic Church Inc." The world's oldest office had been shaped and held since the 16th century by Italians, who dominated the Roman Curia, the bureaucratic machinery of the church, until John Paul diversified it.
John Paul refused to be a prisoner in the Vatican. After his reign, which introduced the "popemobile" to move him safely through multitudes on six continents, "the world expects a witnessing pope, not a bureaucrat or an impossibly distant, ethereal figure," Weigel wrote.
That may be true. But other Vatican watchers caution against underestimating the ability of curial cardinals, who help choose popes, to reassert the authority of the central apparatus. Some cardinals openly described John Paul's activist papacy as a "Polish interregnum" that should be followed by a traditionally passive one.
On the other hand, an assertive new pope may choose to spend less time wandering Earth so he can stay home and goad the Curia, which John Paul deliberately neglected, into line with his own vision. A pope is free to redefine the job according to the needs of his time.
A more certain legacy of John Paul is the mission of the pope as a great communicator. From now on, the College of Cardinals is less likely to choose a pontiff who does not possess at least some of his charisma, language skills and instinct for the telegenic gesture.
"They're going to have to elect someone who at a minimum would not make a fool of himself on international television," said Father Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America.
The Christian Humanist
John Paul's spiritual aura and skill as a communicator made him a popular messenger, but he left a world that had not fully accepted his humanist message.
Under his leadership, many Catholics felt, the church moved center stage in the struggle against tyranny of all kinds.
"Before the collapse of communism, we had this idea of modern man as secular man and the Catholic Church as a remnant of feudalism," said Italian philosopher and politician Rocco Buttiglione. "Now those who struggle for human rights, for a better world, speak the language of Catholic social doctrine."
But in many ways, John Paul had more impact on the world he faced when he became pope in October 1978 than on the world after communism.
He dreamed of a post-communist religious revival in Eastern Europe that would help evangelize anew the West; what he perceived instead were new democracies in the East being corrupted by Western materialism. Political leaders everywhere questioned or ignored his teachings on social justice.
More forcefully than any predecessor, he championed religious freedom and tolerance, and sought an ecumenical unity of Christian churches. But his outreach to Judaism, coupled with the Vatican's recognition of Israel, was his only clear breakthrough.
Orthodox Christian leaders in Russia and Eastern Europe resisted his offers to talk reconciliation with the church of Rome, in part because they saw Rome's authority over Catholics becoming more centralized and feared the loss of their own autonomy.
The pope's 1985 meeting with 50,000 Muslim youths in Casablanca was a tentative step toward a Catholic dialogue with Islam, but it was offset by ongoing persecution by Muslims of Christians in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
Equally innovative — but also far from conclusive — was his promotion of high-level talks with scientists to keep the Vatican abreast of new knowledge in areas ranging from the origin of the universe to biogenetics and to help it grapple with the theological and ethical implications. The move struck a blow against a mutual prejudice that religion and science are intrinsically at odds.
The Authority Figure
All those initiatives added up to a Catholic guide to social engagement with the postmodern world. They advanced dramatically the work begun by popes John XXIII and Paul VI in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, which in the 1960s had charted a broad renewal of Catholicism.
Where John Paul broke with his predecessors — and the council — was in his determination to rule alone. His authoritarian model is less likely to endure.
His doctrinal hard line on sexual morality, his rejection of a more collegial leadership of shared policymaking with bishops and his crackdowns on dissenting clerics and theologians drove many Catholics from the church and engendered resistance from others, raising clamor from parts of a divided flock for a successor more willing to seek consensus.
The gap between ruler and rank and file yawned in 2002 as John Paul hesitated before intervening in burgeoning sexual abuse scandals among U.S. clerics.
Perhaps his most contested pronouncement was that the church has no authority to ordain women, "and all faithful are definitively bound by this judgment." Despite this extraordinary attempt to tie the church to his view forever, many Catholics favor opening the priesthood to women.
One paradox here is that during an activist papal reign that underscored the church's universality, the Catholic flock stagnated at roughly 18% of the world's population while many of its best moral theologians lapsed into silence to stay out of trouble with the Vatican.
Another paradox is that this rigidly doctrinaire pope set one precedent that could haunt his own legacy. Over the Curia's protests, he marked the end of the millennium by asking Catholics to repent for the Crusades, the Inquisition and other errors committed by the church through the ages. Thus, he opened the door to posthumous challenges to policies that future generations may consider his errors. "But what can we do?" John Paul once mused to a Polish priest about his unruly church. Biographers portrayed him as a patient prophet who believed that the ideas he planted would blossom eventually, perhaps long after his death.
But how? John Paul's 14 turgidly written encyclicals, his bestselling book and tens of thousands of homilies are a broad legacy. But they are orphans now — part of a vast, dusty treasury of church teachings into which each future pope may dip, selectively, to support any stance imaginable.
"The new pope will come in, and everyone will be focused on the new pope's ideas," said Father Richard McBrien, a dissident Catholic theologian who teaches at the University of Notre Dame. "Then it's up to history to decide where John Paul fits in."
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He was 'extremely concerned about the world we lived in, and like me, he also felt that in war, all are losers.'
United Nations secretary-general